Liberal fisheries critic Jim Bennett is already back to work after the holidays, taking the government to task for not squeezing as much value as possible from yellowtail flounder.
Bennett pointed to places where yellowtail is selling for around $10 per pound for fillets in the U.S.
“I think the biggest challenge for me as a fisheries critic is to bring enough contemporary and accurate market information regarding fish so that the people on the street know exactly what’s happening and how we’re being disadvantaged,” he said.
“Canada is one of the best nations on Earth surrounded by three oceans and the U.S. economy to the south, and we can’t figure out how to take a fish out of the water and sell it to the Americans without sending it to China? To me, this is almost like a farce.”
Ocean Choice International has announced that it will be closing its Marystown fish plant because it has lost $10 million handling yellowtail at the facility in the past three years.
The company is looking for an exemption from the provincial government to ship out most of the yellowtail quota with a plan to process the rest at a smaller plant in Fortune.
Bennett argued that whether or not to grant the exemption is not the most appropriate question.
“The more appropriate question is what is this resource worth, and who owns it,” he said.
“If they say that they can’t process it in Marystown at a profit, then maybe they shouldn’t process it at all.”
He pointed to a website AlwaysFreshFish.com where small fillets sell for $9.95 per pound as evidence of the market value of flounder.
But Martin Sullivan, president of OCI, said that it’s not possible to look at one small segment of the market and assume that the entire quota can be sold at that price.
“It’s easy to pick small pieces of information and blow it up without looking at the full story,” Sullivan said. “You have to look at the whole mix that you produce and what the economic return on that is.”
He argued that the company has been losing money on the yellowtail operation for years, and has been pursuing markets for the product more aggressively than anyone else ever has. If it were possible to make a go of it, he said, they wouldn’t be in this position.
Instead, Sullivan argued that the main growing market for the product is Asia, where consumers want whole fish.
“We have to respond to what the market wants,” he said. “The growth markets of the world, like Asia, demand seafood in a different form than we’re used to and pay good money for it.”
Bennett said that under the terms of an agreement that gave the yellowtail quota to OCI in 2007, the province should be able to get it back if the company isn’t landing the fish in Marystown.
However, in an e-mailed statement, Fisheries Minister Darin King said that’s not an option.
“In consultation with the FFAW and the Department of Justice, government is satisfied that OCI has lived up to their side of the FPI Implementation Agreement,” he said.
King was interested in the possibility of U.S. marketing though, although he was cautious about it.
“In respect to fish selling at $9.95/lb in the U.S.: there are always small markets for certain types of fish throughout the world,” King said.
“We are glad this was brought to our attention. Government is doing its own research around the markets and will take this into consideration before a decision is made. The current claim by the opposition regarding $9.95/lb in the US is taken at face value until such time as it is confirmed and evaluated. Government will look into it. However, we express caution that just because one website is selling it at this price does not necessarily represent the entire market. There are always specialty markets."